Almost one third (32%) of Brits know little or nothing about the Holocaust. On Holocaust Memorial Day, as the world commemorates 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, freelance writer Deborah Cicurel urges us not to forget the lessons of the past.
This is the phrase that has been drummed into me since I was a little girl. It referred to the Holocaust, the state-sponsored genocide during World War Two, and masterminded by Adolf Hitler, that killed six million Jews. Millions of other innocent people were also slaughtered, including those with disabilities, prisoners of war and homosexuals.
“Never again” was a promise we took that the atrocities seen during the “Final Solution” - the Nazi’s term for the plan to exterminate the Jews - would never again happen in the world. “Never again” was a promise we took that innocent people would never again be murdered because of senseless hatred: a promise that we would fight for those facing persecution.
Growing up in northwest London, an area full of Jewish people, and attending Jewish schools for most of my life, I learnt about the horrors of the Holocaust in detail. I attended Holocaust Remembrance Day and took part in memorial events. I listened to talks by Holocaust survivors, who, in the face of growing Holocaust denial, pleaded with an increasing urgency for people to remember the awful atrocities committed by the Nazis.
I, along with the rest of my school year, took an eight day trip to Poland, in order to visit the Warsaw Ghetto and concentration camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, the largest of the camps, where over a million men, women and children were killed. Many of my friends had grandparents who had survived the Holocaust, or family members who had lost their lives in concentration camps. The Holocaust even formed part of my GCSE curriculum, where, as part of studying for our exams, we learnt in detail about how Hitler and the Nazis came into power, and how they implemented their evil plan.
Growing up in this environment, and with WWII not so long ago, I assumed that most people had an understanding of the events of the Holocaust: if not as in-depth as my understanding, due to my heritage, at least a basic knowledge of what had happened only a few decades ago.
However, according to a study commissioned by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and conducted by Schoen Consulting, general knowledge around the topic of the Holocaust is shockingly lacking.
In the USA, according to the study, over a fifth of millennials have not heard of, or are not sure they have heard of, the Holocaust. This was also the case for 11% of adults. Additionally, two thirds of millennials could not identify what Auschwitz was, while nearly half believed that two million Jews or fewer were killed during the Holocaust.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, 70% of adults agreed with the statement: “fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust as much as they used to”, while 58% believe that something like the Holocaust could happen again.
You might ask why it’s so important to prioritise Holocaust education. The horrifying events happened in the Thirties and Forties, you might say, so what can we even learn from then today?
There is a quote, by Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller, who himself was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, which we were taught over and over again in school. It goes like this:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Remembering the Holocaust is not just about standing up to Holocaust deniers. It’s not just about commemorating the millions of lives that were senselessly lost. It’s not just about mourning the dead, and hearing the miraculous stories of those who made it out alive. It’s not just about understanding the depths of human depravity and evil, and learning about the destruction that can happen when political power gets into the wrong hands. Remembering the Holocaust is not just for Jews. It’s for all of us, to make sure we learn from the lessons of the past.
Despite the promise of “Never again”, several genocides have occurred since the end of WWII. In Rwanda, in Cambodia, in Darfur: the list, tragically, goes on. Charities like the Holocaust Educational Trust make it their mission to educate thousands of people every year about the Holocaust, sending brave survivors into school to shed light on the atrocities of the “Final Solution”. In the meantime, hate crimes, antisemitic attacks and Holocaust denials continue to rise to terrifying levels. Only last month, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Mirelle Knoll, was stabbed and burned to death in her Paris apartment in a suspected antisemitic murder. Imagine surviving the Holocaust, only to be barbarically killed in 2018 for no reason other than your religion. It’s chilling.
Learning about how the Holocaust happened, how onlookers let it happen and how brave people fought against it, is just the start of preventing any further tragedies based on senseless hatred. Whether it’s innocent, elderly ladies being burned in their apartments, or full-scale genocides that wipe out millions of people, we know better than this. We must learn important lessons from history about the futility and destructiveness of hatred, and promise to educate ourselves and others on those lessons. Let’s make the promise together: “Never again”.
This article was originally published in April 2018 and has been updated throughout